Empty Chairs Around the Holiday Table
“There is a grief that can’t be spoken. There is a pain that goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables. Now my friends are dead and gone.”
We in America are not good at grieving. Most of us tend to numb our pain with alcohol, television, food, or drugs in an effort to never fully experience the stinging pain of loss. Corporate America provides you three whole days to come to terms with great loss, so it is not unrealistic to gravitate to unhealthy habits to make it through the day. Yet, the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas sneak up on us; as we encourage ourselves to drag out the decorations, the open wounds of loss are in our face. There is no escaping the empty chairs around the holiday table as we embrace our world without those we love. We can’t fake it till we make it; our bodies break down with illness as we try to sew our broken hearts back together.
We all have our secrets, behind closed doors—our own ways of dealing with our losses. We feel ashamed to cry, we apologize to friends as tears fall decades later in our preoccupation when empty chairs is apparent, and nothing we do can possibly ease the pain created by departed individuals. Recently, while traveling to Florida in my RV on my Live Well Die Well tour, I was listening to the Broadway show, Les Miserables, when this extraordinary song was being played about pain of loss, love, and regret. Most try to find something to relate to, something that provides light to the dark corners of our hearts. For me, it is music, but not the kind of music that you might guess. It is the music performed on the Broadway stage. I find myself relating to the story, while wobbling through the holidays. For some reason, it helps to listen to a performer who acts out the grief we all tend to carry at some point in our lives.
I recently realized that when you lose someone you’ve loved, there is no such thing as finding peace or getting over it. When we lose someone close to us there is no closure. The person who we were before has died as well. The person we were prior to our loss is no more. As we grieve, the struggle of rebirthing ourselves to our new world is painful, unimageable, and, at times, scary. The pain of labor is long, at times unbearable. There is no timeline—no end. All we can manage is to learn to wear our grief well, to embrace the moments that shock us back to reality that we are no longer the person we once knew. At times, our laughter is stopped by overwhelming guilt as we feel life pushing us forward without our permission.
As each of us face the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a few simple actions might inspire us to remember those we have lost in the tribute of celebration, a prayer of gratitude, realizing we are lucky that these individuals graced our lives.
- Write a letter of thanksgiving to someone you lost, which is weighing heavy on your heart. Once you have written this letter, burn it in a fireplace or campfire, releasing your words to the heavens.
- Around the holiday table, remember the loved ones you’ve lost by sharing a special memory with those around the table. This could even be done with friends. We’ve all lost someone we cared about. This exercise is a way to realize we are not alone in our grief.
- As you decorate for the holidays, lean into the true celebration of life. Create a remembrance in honor of your loved ones’ life.
- Gather family and/or friends for a remembrance hike in honor of someone you lost. Nature reminds us that death is a part of life. It reminds us not to judge ourselves, of the simple pleasures of connection, and that we can still see and feel our loved ones in all things even if they are gone.
- Yes, sometimes a good cry releases the built-up pain, allowing us to wear our grief well. Know this is all part of the process—there is no timeline.
- Make a choice to choose LOVE over bitterness.
- Remember, humor can create spaces where there is no space.
As you journey through the holidays this year, remember you are not alone. At times, we cannot think our way out of grief, we can only act by placing one foot in front of the other, taking one moment at a time, breathing in and out. Just know, this is okay.
Kimberly C. Paul, Death by Design
End of Life Podcaster, Author, Speaker
Kimberly left her job at a hospice in December 2016, cashed in her retirement and created a new platform that invites everyone around the table to have open conversations about death and dying. She has created a podcast series, Death by Design, which hosts industry leaders in medicine as well as artists, designers, caregivers and authors who are reclaiming their voice around their own experiences with death and dying. Each conversation is meant to inspire listeners to engage in difficult conversations around their own deaths, to actively make decisions about how and where they want to die and begin to change the taboo subject of death and dying into the ultimate gift of connection with family and friends. Death by Design Podcast is in its 2nd season and continues to normalize difficult conversations, discover ordinary individuals making extraordinary differences in their local communities and highlight people who are developing new ways to assist the Baby Boomers as they design their own end of life.
Since her book, Bridging the Gap, was published on April 13th, 2018, Kimberly is on to her next adventure as she tours the United States to speak to people. But she is doing it a little differently than anyone expected. In June 2018, Kimberly bought an RV, downsized her belongings and hit the road with her German Shepherd, Haven. Kimberly has named her adventure the “Live Well Die Well Tour” because, she says, “The more I talk about death, the more boldly I feel I’m living life to the fullest.”